I remember the phone call as if it were yesterday.
"I'm getting married," Dad said. "You don't have to for the family," I replied. "No, I want to. It's the right thing to do." "But your life is going so well. Why complicate things? Why not just live together?" "I love Helen and we are going to get married."
Five years ago I had this conversation with my father. And in the classic case of role reversal, where the child becomes the parent of the man, I was telling him that "at his age" marriage was an unnecessary social formality.
At 84 years of age my father, in no uncertain tone, stated his intentions.
Bill Redshaw lived an average life. He learned his first wife had left him when he opened their apartment door after less than a year of marriage and found the place cleaned out. For decades no one ever mentioned that he had been married before my mother. My two sisters and I only heard this woman's name mentioned in whispered tones and my young brother never learned of these early nuptials until our mother's death, when he was 21 years old. I suppose he didn't sit around the kitchen table like the girls.
Marriage, in the best of circumstances, is one of life's great challenges and my parents' life together had more than its share of ups and downs. As with many middle class families in the latter half of the 20th century, money, or the lack of it, was always a problem. Bill, partnered with his brother, owned a men's clothing store. As good a "people person" as he was, he totally lacked financial acumen. Bankruptcy was declared when I was a sophomore in high school and we lost everything - business, house, cars - everything.
That was a turning point in the family's life in general and Mother's health in particular. Stricken with rheumatoid arthritis, she became dependent on her husband and children. Everyone stepped up to the plate but particularly my dad. He worked long hours at a downtown department store and came home to cook and shop and be there for her.
The night she died, he told us that he always had been faithful to her even though for more than 10 years she was unable to be a wife to him physically.
He was 56 years old and certainly did not owe his children an explanation any kind. But he was devoted to her and in these years of adversity, their marriage flourished.
But Pop was a woman's man - far different than a womanizer. My father loved the company of women. On occasion, when we were growing up, he'd have the guys over for poker parties and of course, owning a men's clothing store, a good bit of his day was spent shooting the breeze with male customers. But he much preferred the company of women.
Less than six months after Mother died, I got a phone call. He had met Ruth, friends from work had fixed them up, and he wanted us to meet her. They married. The next 20 years were marked by the distance she kept him from his children and grandchildren. Phone calls were made when she was at the beauty shop getting her hair done. Visits were restricted to a few days even though thousands of miles were traveled to see him.
Ruth died and Dad was left in an empty house facing the reality of being unable to live independently. He moved to the Residence at Timberpines and flourished in the community atmosphere. There were plenty of women for him to tell stories to at dinner, lots of musical activities where he could sing his old favorites.
I was concerned because he lacked perspective on his age. He was attracted to women 30 and 40 years younger who enjoyed his sense of humor but were unwilling to commit to a man who could not offer them physical gratification. Dad lacked the one commodity that old men need to attract a trophy - a big bank account.
All through this process we talked on the phone. After Ruth died, I called him every day. It was my chance to reacquaint myself with my dad and to make sure, even though I was thousands of miles away, that he was up and about every day.
So, after a few failed romances where I counseled this grown man as if he were a teenage boy asking out his first date, I got the call about Helen.
Helen was equally insistent about getting married. As executor of my father's estate, I was concerned what marriage would do to his Social Security. Would we have the same bad feelings with her family as we did with Ruth's when she died? (Ruth's children wanted my father to give them his home, even though Ruth had a will giving everything to her husband of 20-plus years.) All the details and concerns parents are supposed to have for their children, were now in reverse.
Amazing to us was the fact that Helen was not a younger woman, typical of my father's pursuits. Helen was nine years older than Pop.
So the wedding was on.
My father put on his handsome, light blue pin-striped suit. Helen had on a silver dress with a corsage. They chose a day at church when there had been a celebration with lots of flowers and they had the minister invite the congregation to stay after the service to share in the ceremony. Bill walked Helen down the aisle. He carried the wood-carved Irish cane his son had given him.
Placed in front of the altar were two cushioned chairs, so the couple could sit during the vows.
Helen was a marvelous pianist and since they both loved music, Helen thought it would be nice to volunteer once a week in the memory loss wing of the residence. Every Tuesday after lunch, Helen would play and Dad would sing the old tunes, encouraging people to join in singing or clap along. It was the first time in my dad's life he had ever volunteered for anything.
They spent their days and nights together after the wedding, shopping for a few items at the grocery store, taking short drives to the coast. Eventually, and very reluctantly, Dad had to give up his driver's license. They spent more time sitting on their balcony watching the busy traffic in the distance. It even became a joke for them to stand and cheer when the 7 p.m. Greyhound went by.
Because their time was short, they celebrated their anniversary every month instead of every year. After 12 months, Dad went to the florist and had a special centerpiece made with fresh flowers and 12 tall candles, each signifying a month of their time together.
After a little more than a year, Dad's health began to fail. His legs were weak from two bypass operations and he couldn't walk anymore without great difficulty. The possibility of Parkinson's was being studied. His speech slowed and his memory lapsed. Because Helen no longer could "manage" him and he no longer could maneuver from bed to chair, the residence agreed to move him into the memory loss unit. But because he was there, Helen could visit him down the hall. She ate lunch with him every day, helping him eat as his coordination began to fail.
He seemed lost and removed from life except when Helen walked in the room. Even if he was sitting far away from the door, his eyes would brighten and he would wave when she entered. They held hands and she kissed him "hello" and "goodbye" and for the brief time they were together, he was happy.
But it was fatiguing. It was hard on Helen, who needed to be careful with her health. It was hard on us kids, each living in other states. It was hard on Dad. He didn't suffer from memory loss. He suffered from loneliness and incapacitation.
I got a call from the head of nursing that said they could no longer care for Dad at the residence. We had been assured that they would allow him to stay until he died, so this came as a surprise to us. But the reality of his physical deterioration made it impossible for them to provide the physical care he needed anymore.
I told Helen we would look for nursing homes near her and, to my surprise, she said that she "could no longer care for him. He needs to be with family." In our long-distance conversations, I had assumed she would want him close and in her heart, I'm sure she did. The reality of her 90-plus years and his rapidly declining state of health made her decision difficult, but the right one.
My brother and sister found a hospice in Pittsburgh where Dad had planned to be buried with our mother. Arrangements needed to be made to get Dad there in the most comfortable way possible.
He was too ill to drive that far, even by ambulance, so the only alternative was an air Medivac. Dad was not a rich man but there was no hesitation on any of our parts to spend the more than $7,000 to fly him via jet to Pittsburgh. I made arrangements to fly from Seattle to Tampa to Pittsburgh with my dad and then back to Seattle after he was settled at the hospice.
I have done difficult things in my life but making the decision to separate my father and Helen is the hardest decision I ever hope to make.
They both knew that they were saying goodbye forever. Helen told him she would come and see him once he got settled but she was in no condition to travel. The staff and the residents all came to say goodbye to "Wild Bill" that morning. It was a moniker that couldn't be further from the truth but stamped on a license plate and attached to his walker, it always brought a comment or joke from passersby.
The EMT asked who it was that they were flying. I asked him why and he said because he transports people all the time and he'd never seen as tearful a goodbye as for my dad.
My dad was just an average guy. That is if you consider average kind to a fault, responsible and loving to his family, always looking for the bright side of any situation.
In less than a week after I had flown home to Seattle, I got the call from my sister that Dad had died. A card was on the bed stand from Helen with a small picture of her - telling him she loved and missed him.
Four children, 10 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren got together to share memories of Pappy.
Walking by the casket, Alyson, all of 3 years old, slipped two pennies among the satin folds. She wanted this man whom she had never met to have something in his pocket - "just in case."
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